June 1—July 17, 2007
Directed by Frédérique Michel
Production Design by Charles A. Duncombe
Cast: Ruthie Crossley Justin Davanzo Troy Dunn David E. Frank Nita Mickley Maximiliano Molina Alisha Nichols Mariko Oka Rachel Oliva Bo Roberts
LA TIMES – RECOMMENDED!
Rhinoceros at City Garage: Staying human against all odds
Friday, June 8, 2007
F. Kathleen Foley
There’s this niggling problem with Ionesco. Over the decades, interpreters approach his texts with an increasingly misplaced reverence that can be stultifying.
Not so Frédérique Michel, whose staging of “Rhinoceros” at City Garage invests Ionesco’s absurdist classic with a heightened sense of whimsy. From the hilarious opening scene in which the actors frolic about to infectiously Gallic music, we realize we’re in for a romp. The dun-colored sets of Charles A. Duncombe’s sunlit production design provide an unobtrusive backdrop for the play’s human cartoons, who move about in a sort of group bustle. The exception to the general purposefulness is Berenger (Troy Dunn), the hapless everyman who recurs in several of Ionesco’s plays. A shambling boozer with “loser” written all over him, Berenger wanders through the crisply syncopated scenes with a telling lack of direction. But when his fellow townspeople transform into rampaging rhinoceroses, Berenger refuses to follow the herd and capitulate to conformity.
Of course, Berenger’s heroic inflexibility is the point of the play, a veiled parable of the Nazi scourge. When all about him are becoming beasts, Berenger remains defiantly human.
Dunn, who played Agamemnon and Pentheus in City Garage’s “Three by Mee” trilogy, gives a serviceable performance here but seems more comfortable cast in a heroic mold than as the comically perplexed Berenger. But plenty of requisite twinkle is provided by the engaging cast, especially David E. Frank as Berenger’s supposedly iconoclastic co-worker Botard, who succumbs to the prevalent plague in short order, and Justin Davanzo as the Logician, whose mind-bogglingly circuitous arguments get some of the production’s biggest laughs.
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The Rhino and the Whino
By Steven Leigh Morris
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
In Eugene Ionesco’s 1958 farce, Rhinoceros, a number of characters hear sweet music in the trumpeting of rhinos carousing on the streets of a provincial French town. Where we hear something resembling a seventh-grade kid learning to play a coronet, they hear Audra McDonald. Yet the trumpeting is only music to those in the throes of a mysterious transformation from human to pachyderm. One by one, the entire population grows horns and thick skins, and becomes destined to trample flowers, crush staircases and decimate the town square. The play — made more famous than it might otherwise have been by Eli Wallach and Zero Mostel on Broadway — is among the seminal works in the Theater of the Absurd, a movement fomented in the trenches of World War I and seasoned by the nuclear explosions over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Luigi Pirandello and Harold Pinter are the Theater of the Absurd’s original four horsemen of the apocalypse, pouncing on both logicians and the clergy like literary gang rapists, exposing the lethal brutality underlying human relations in general, and polite society in particular. Their plays are usually done as some kind of clown show with human puppets blathering non sequiturs. Ionesco lifted entire passages of dialogue from a foreign language primer. Like in Dada, it’s supposed to be as nuts as life and death itself.
As the Cold War was thawing, I was taught in university that the Theater of the Absurd was dead, an antique curiosity, as though our fruitful existence was now secured for the indefinite future. Thank goodness, they said, that in the theater, we could go back to comparatively comfortable dramas of family dysfunction, like those written by Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. It’s not God who’s dead, they argued, it’s Chicken Little. Of course that was before global warming.
So here we are again, with the entire Middle East nuking up, with the icecaps melting and Chicken Little center stage. The prospect of our extinction as a species doesn’t even seem shocking anymore. Hamlet summed up that reckoning with mortality in his oft-quoted remark about “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”
It’s widely believed that Ionesco’s rhinos are stand-ins for the Nazis. Yet if, in Rhinoceros, we’re supposed to be watching the painful process of political and spiritual capitulation to the brutes, there’s no stage direction calling for a swastika on the set, nor does director Frederíque Michel, in this current staging of Rhinoceros at Santa Monica’s City Garage, play the fascist card in any overt way. We certainly don’t see any rhinos waiting in line at Starbucks as part of some critique of our corporate-consumer theology — the kind of critique this theater has woven into its adaptations of texts by Heiner Müller.
Rather, Michel serves up an ensemble of marionettes attired for the late ’50s (costumes by Josephine Poinsot), sitting and crossing their legs in unison, sometimes snorting involuntarily, and then stopping to gaze out for a moment beyond their insulated worlds of grocery shops and dime-store novels to see a beast thunder across their horizon, accompanied by a low rumble and snare drums (sound design by Paul M. Rubenstein). Instead of actually seeing the rhino, we observe the witnesses’ expressions of amazement before they return to their lives, bickering over whether the animal had one horn or two. A bow-tied Logician (Justin Davanzo) helps them make further sense of their tiny world by reasoning that since all cats die, and Socrates is dead, Socrates must have been a cat. In many ways it’s a pedantic little comedy, made more so by the actors’ supercilious emphasis on drones like Jean (Bo Roberts), who blusters out his moral superiority as though he has a target and the words “shoot me” painted onto his jacket. The play’s hero is the aimless, wine-toting Berenger (Troy Dunn), whose greatest virtues are his lack of punctuality and purpose. Dunn wanders through this dream in a completely different acting style. They’re doing a puppet show, while he’s playing cinéma vérité with matted hair and a three-day beard, looking like a cross between a young David Clennon and Mark Ruffalo. The contrast of style is strategic and effective, but would be more so were the town’s idiocy not painted in primary colors. Perhaps Michel respects the play too much, underscoring its patronizing, professorial qualities — which also may be exaggerated in Derek Prouse’s translation.
Yet Michel’s production captures something about the loss of what it means to be human. Whatever that is, we’re free to fill in. We see Roberts’ Jean suffering with a fever on a little bed. He strips off the sheets, and we see his skin now green, his voice growing hoarse. It was this transformation, as performed by Mostel, that electrified the Broadway stage. Roberts’ is more schematic than spontaneous, yet in that metamorphosis, you can feel the tug of our age: the mergers and market forces slowly diminishing the arts and other services that help people to be rather than just to buy. You can hear the howls of dissent growing softer, confined now to small pens, watched by police cameras and ignored by news cameras. You can feel cults of narcissism and celebrity rising as the cultural skin thickens, as publishing industries fall away, as any pretense to an intellectually open and diverse society lies on that bed, wheezing.
Designer Ralph Funicello provides a huge painted backdrop of Brueghel the Elder’s pre-Elizabethan painting Dulle Griet for Daniel Sullivan’s perfunctory staging of Hamlet at South Coast Repertory. Brueghel’s painted goblins of hell frame the action on an otherwise barren wooden platform stage, decorated with a throne or two. Hamlet, like Berenger, is out of joint with his time and with the world he occupies, only Hamlet has a purpose — vengeance — which comes to him in a vision as the ghost of his father. This is much like the trumpeting of the rhinos, the call of the dead, or of the Nazis, who were similarly fueled by revenge, and much of Europe signed on to their derangement. In Hamlet too we observe the steady metamorphosis of an entire population — the royalty of Elsinore — from humans into a herd of ghosts, propelled by lunacy to the grave and beyond it, if that looming Dulle Griet is supposed to mean anything. In Hamlet too they turn, one by one, Polonius (Dakin Matthews), Ophelia (Brooke Bloom), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Henri Lubatti and Jeff Marlow), Laertes (Graham Hamilton), Gertrude and Claudius (Linda Gehringer and Robert Foxworth), to our hero himself (Hamish Linklater), until whatever it means to be human, or simply to be, has been vanquished. This leaves Fortinbras (David DeSantos) and the Norwegians to take over. And that doesn’t look any more promising, given the grudge that motivated their arrival.
Dulle Griet — painted large over this production — offers the lure of a conceptually bold and potentially consequential Hamlet that the director resolutely ignores, in favor of the kind of generic, self-important, somewhat witty rendition that we see year in, year out. Foxworth and Gehringer make for a perfectly serviceable king and queen, Matthews’ windbag Polonius sparkles with clarity and humor, and as Hamlet, the slender, charismatic and, yes, often brooding Linklater moves with the understated grace of an actor. Given his au naturel method approach, it’s a deficit when understatement appears affected and overstatement overstated, sort of like a teen idol playing Hamlet. Some of Linklater’s speeches are gorgeously delivered, nonetheless. He’s allowed to express among the most eloquent ruminations and complaints ever written about what it means to be alive. Given the real prospect of human extinction, the play, like Rhinoceros, could and should resonate with a meaning that would make the Absurdists proud.
Theatre Talk, Thursday, June 28, 2007
“The Absurd vs the Anecdotal”
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk. Forty–five years ago, Martin Esslin published the book, The Theatre of the Absurd, which was easily the most influential theatrical text of the 1960’s. Since that heady time, when playwrights like Albee, Beckett, Dürrenmatt, Pinter and others seemed to be innately connected to the zeitgeist, there have been lots of interesting plays—but no real movements.
A new revival of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros playing here in Santa Monica is sharp reminder of those forty-five years. This production (directed by Frederíque Michel) doesn’t reinvent Ionesco’s play, nor make us see it in any new light. Michel adds a Sarkozy reference and music by Charles Trenet, but on the whole, it’s a rather traditional take on the material.
Because of this straightforward staging, one can see Rhinoceros for what it is: A longish, imperfect play that is somehow still deeply profound. One also sees how incredibly difficult a play it is to bring to life on stage. So difficult that it may have even permanently driven Orson Welles from stage directing. (His 1960 production of Rhinoceros in London, starring Laurence Olivier as Berenger, was the last thing he ever directed for the theater.) The actors in Michel’s production are not Olivier’s and they struggle throughout the play with Ionesco’s bleak yet comic lines.
Michel’s stagecraft can’t elevate the production beyond the cast’s limitations or the play’s challenges, but simply getting it up on stage is a valuable reminder of how theatre was once the place for writers to be daring and stretch an audiences view of the world and themselves.
If, 45 years later, there a theatrical movement forming today, I would argue that’s its epicenter is here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this movement is far less daring and frankly, much more mundane. If the Post-World War II years brought us the Theatre of the Absurd; the early 21st century brings us the Theatre of the Anecdote.
Rhinoceros and plays of its era employed big ideas and bold gestures, often at the risk of alienating its audience; whereas the Theatre of the Anecdote seeks to tell small, personal stories, usually using direct address to make sure nothing is left misunderstood.
The World Premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face at the Mark Taper Forum provides a perfect example of the Theatre of the Anecdote. Hwang’s play is a thinly fictionalized account of the playwright’s own artistic and political troubles. Because Hwang is more openly self-critical than most writers, the piece has some fun moments. But ultimately, besides the reliable truth vs. fiction conceit, Yellow Face is simply a first-person essay put on stage.
There is nothing wrong with this—as essays go, Yellow Face is amusing and well structured. But it isn’t really a play. And it’s not just David Hwang who’s not making plays. The Taper has over the years become ground zero for this type of theater—witness this season’s offerings Distracted or Nightingale. But this form is also spreading to Broadway with “plays” such as the Joan Didion adaptation: The Year of Magical Thinking. Like the citizens of the small French town in Ionesco slowly turning into Rhinceroses; theaters around the English-speaking world are seeing dramatic plays quietly being replaced by staged memoirs. Welcome to the Theater of the Anecdote.
Yellow Face continues through Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum; Ionesco’s Rhinoceros runs through July 18 at City Garage in Santa Monica. This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
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RHINOCEROS by Eugene Ionesco
By Steven Leigh Morris
Monday, June 4, 2007
The comedically regimented choreography in director Frederique Michel’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s 1958 farce (translated by Derek Prouse) handily complements the Absurdist Romanian author’s portrayal of a town’s entire population transforming into the eponymous pachyderms. Even if Bo Roberts’ overly bombastic Jean — a living suit-and-tie blathering about rectitude and responsibility — overstates Ionesco’s dig at sanctimonious drones, at least the play is boldly interpreted. In manner and acting approach, Troy Dunn’s lead character, Berenger, is out on his own, a soft-spoken method actor in a world of stark puppets. He’s a stand-in for Ionesco — and us — as the townsfolk benignly capitulate to thick-skinned, dull-witted conformity. Ionesco wrote this after having observed the French embrace of the Nazis, and all of the lunatic rationalizations of that embrace passing for logic.
Michel shrewdly keeps Nazis and other rabid defenders of homeland security at arm’s length in a production that’s simply about the cost of being different. Though much of Ionesco’s satire is now pedantic and overwritten, the core idea, like this production, contains a horror that borders on tragedy, like the arts, or what used to be called free thinking, slowly shutting down in the body politic, organ by organ.